Studying theology in a secular institution can be challenging to the faith of a young Christian. You are taught about a wide range of theological beliefs, some of which are outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. Your teachers know much more about the Bible and history than anyone in your church back home, and they often make more sense of the complex world around than some of the simple formulas you learnt in Sunday school. The faith of your upbringing can at times feel weak and tenuous compared to what now confronts you.
People respond in different ways when introduced to such a large mass of plausible worldviews. Some cling defensively to their childhood faith; others quickly abandon it and join another denomination, or leave the church altogether. Still others develop a schizophrenic intellectual life, affirming one thing on Sunday mornings and another in their essays and exams.
I have considered the challenges of theological study in collaboration with a few friends, and together we have come up with the following tips to offer. The goal of the advice below is to help students to see their faith as a journey, and to maintain personal integrity by holding their faith in tension with an openness to be challenged and learn new things.
1. Be clear and honest about your reasons for your faith
Be honest with yourself about why you believe what you do. Usually at this time of life, it is because you were raised that way. That is nothing to be ashamed of, because it’s true of almost everybody. One thing is true of absolutely everyone: our outlook on life is formed by parents, teachers, and cultural influences (TV, music, etc.) long before we begin to reflect and question.
Children of religious parents are no more ‘indoctrinated’ than children of secular parents. The secular outlook is not neutral or unbiased compared to that of a religion. Everyone’s worldview is a mixture of faith and reason, but people put faith in different things. Some put faith in scientific investigation, others in historical enquiry, others in the inevitable progress of human knowledge and understanding. A Christian who puts his or her faith in what intelligent, reflective Christians have lived by for centuries is not being more or less biased than an atheist who puts his or her faith in natural progress, or in the ability of science to answer questions of faith.
However, for the very same reason, your faith must have humility in the way it is expressed. Hopefully you will begin to seek out concrete reasons for your beliefs. But be careful that the reasons you find don’t imply that other people are ignorant or stupid. For example, if you suggest it is logically obvious that God exists, what does it imply about everyone who disbelieves in God? The truth is that there are no simple or clear answers which everyone would arrive at if they just thought long enough about it. If Christianity could be proven intellectually, then all the most intelligent people in the world would be Christian. Some of the greatest minds and top academics in the world are Christians, but not all of them are. It is possible to be intelligent, knowledgeable, sincere, and to adhere to a number of different faith positions.
2. Be open to having your beliefs clarified, challenged, and altered
Believing things because you were raised to believe them is natural, but it becomes problematic if you cling stubbornly to a belief when your context is pressing you to examine it. We all know what a defensive attitude looks like – when someone appears unwilling to take another viewpoint seriously, and depends on weak arguments to support their original position. Christians have sometimes taken this attitude, not just for a single argument but for many decades, and it has invariably had a negative impact on the gospel message.
Jesus says he is the truth and the light of the world. This means we never need to fear any truth we encounter, because it must always lead us back to him in the end. We must have the courage to trust that the truth of Jesus is more powerful than any lie. If we do so, then we never need to take a defensive attitude towards anything. We can boldly explore and learn, anchored in the truth we already know, and our faith can only grow as a result.
If you choose to take a non-defensive attitude towards truth, your beliefs will be challenged and altered. Your faith in Jesus may remain, but your understanding of who he is and what that means may radically change. Let God take you on a journey of discovery, and do not be afraid.
3. Invest in Christian community
Spend regular time with other Christians for support. The best sort are those who have also studied theology, but any Christian will be good for you if they are loving, accepting, and willing to give you space to process your doubts and questions.
Why is this important? Because although Jesus is the truth, his teaching is not always the most plausible in every culture and context. We are living in a culture which considers Christian faith implausible. If we immerse ourselves in that culture without contact with other Christians, then Christian faith will become implausible to us too. That is not giving Jesus a fair chance. It is much better to have both Christian and non-Christian friends, and to talk with both regularly about issues of faith.
4. Be honest with your church about your struggle
Don’t hide your doubts and struggles from your Christian community. If you have reached a point in your theological journey where, at the present moment, you don’t believe that Jesus was divine, then it is far better to admit this than to pretend you still believe it. Other people must understand that your journey of faith requires time and breathing room. Make sure you are part of a church which understands that it is there to support you, not judge you. This doesn’t mean that they will never try to persuade you of a traditional view, but it does mean that they give you room to air your doubts and journey with them.
5. Notice the transforming effect of faith on people you know
The beliefs of people you respect are more worthy of attention than the cleverest arguments of anyone else. Look at the people around you and ask yourself: Who do I most want to be like? Who do I want to learn from, not only what they teach but how they live? A person’s life is a testimony to the transforming power of their beliefs.
In ancient Greece, a student learned from their master in every way, not just head knowledge. The goal of the student was to become like their master. The ancient Greeks understood that a person’s teaching could not be separated from their lifestyles: the two have a great influence on one another. The Greek word for “student” was mathetes, the same word translated in the New Testament as “disciple.”
6. Recognise that faith is more than intellect
Nobody believes what they believe for purely rational reasons. We are human beings, not robots, and our beliefs are a complex mix of experience, desire, culture and reflection. We believe some things because they make us happy, other things because we’ve never questioned them, other things because we trust people who have told us so. Although reflecting rationally on all beliefs is an important process, there are nonetheless limits to what reflection can accomplish. Our brains have limited power to comprehend the mysteries of the universe. There will always be far, far more things you don’t know than things you know. All the knowledge of all the humans in the world is a tiny drop in a vast ocean.
The world desperately needs thinkers with the humility and courage to cross boundaries. The boundary between religion and secularity is growing every year. Christians and non-Christians understand one another less and less. If you can learn how to subject your faith to honest scrutiny without being tossed about by the waves of popular opinion, then you can be an instrument of healing in an increasingly divided world.